What is... psychology series

What Is… Libido

In this series, I dig a little deeper into the meaning of psychology-related terms.  This week’s term is libido.

I’m guessing everyone already knows what libido (or sex drive) is on a surface level, but I was curious to find out what lies beneath the surface, and it turns out that it’s influenced by a combination of psychological, physiological, and social factors.

The role of hormones

Biologically, the libido is fuelled by the action of dopamine and the sex hormones testosterone and estrogen in the nucleus accumbens, the brain’s pleasure centre.  There are a number of other hormones and neurotransmitters involved, including progesterone, oxytocin, serotonin, norepinephrine, and acetylcholine.

In females, libido may fluctuate throughout the monthly cycles as a result of changes in the levels of estrogen, progesterone, and testosterone (yes, females do produce some testosterone, just like males produce some estrogen).

Psychoanalytic theory

The term libido was first popularized by Sigmund Freud, who described it as “the energy, regarded as a quantitative magnitude… of those instincts which have to do with all that may be comprised under the word ‘love’.”  He considered it to be an innate instinct, much like hunger, that is part of the id.

In terms of defense mechanisms that can come into play, libido can be repressed (pushed out of conscious awareness) or sublimated (redirected into something that’s considered more acceptable).

According to Carl Jung, the libido “denotes a desire or impulse which is unchecked by any kind of authority, moral or otherwise. Libido is appetite in its natural state. From the genetic point of view it is bodily needs like hunger, thirst, sleep, and sex, and emotional states or affects, which constitute the essence of libido.”

Low libido and psychiatry

Diminished sex drive can occur as a result of mental illness, including depression and PTSD.  Psychiatric medications can also decrease libido, making it a bit of a chicken-or-egg scenario.

The DSM-5 includes hypoactive sexual desire disorder as a diagnosis; it involves a lack of sex drive that causes clinically significant distress.  It’s a bit of a controversial disorder because simply having a low sex drive is not necessarily pathological.  Then you have asexuality as a sexual orientation, which involves a lack of sexual attraction to others, which may overlap with low libido but isn’t the same thing.

Erectile dysfunction drugs like Viagra don’t work by promoting arousal.  Instead, they promote vasodilation to allow the rush of blood that produces an erection.  The signal still needs to come from the brain to get it up; without that, Viagra isn’t going to do much.

I haven’t had sex for several years.  I’ve got a low sex drive that masturbation takes care of just fine.  My sex drive was stronger when I was younger, but depression has deflated that.  Mostly now I just don’t care.  If I never have sex again I’d be fine with that.

Has your libido changed over time or due to illness?

Source: Wikipedia: Libido


Psychology resources: What Is insights into psychology series and psychological tests

You can find a directory of the terms covered in the what is… series here.

There’s also a collection of psychological tests here.

23 thoughts on “What Is… Libido”

  1. Mental illness has definitely lowered mine when very anxious or depressed. I like that you challenged the hypoactive sexual desire disorder from the DSM. The big thing that separates disorder from normal is the amount of distress it causes. Great post

  2. I had a extraordinarily high sex drive from age 14 to 54 (menopause), but mostly I didn’t have much sex (except self). When I was with men, they found me exhausting and said so. I gobbled up romance novels and some actual porn too, which fueled my nonstop thoughts on the topic. My long-term marriage became completely sexless the last decade… idk why. Maybe my demanding ways, lol. Anyway, thank God for menopause… it’s like a switch just flipped off. I had one last disaster relationship at 55 and now I’m done. It’s such a freaking relief! For me, libido was entirely physical and driven by my crazy hormonal levels.

  3. Very interesting and informative! As you pointed out about times of the month, I can definitely tell when I’m ovulating, because my libido goes wild. The rest of the time, it’s present to a lesser degree, and I’m glad it’s not all-the-way dead, because I’d love to have sex with the right person. Also, though, a lot of my sex drive is suppressed due to a lot of childhood shame, which unfortunately makes it impossible for me to… ahem. I’d love to experience that someday, too! 😲Fun topic!

  4. The thing that has made mine fluctuate tje most is SSRI/SNRI medication. But once my dr and I found the right combination and dosage, it got a lot closer to “normal” (my version of normal anyway).

  5. Reading your post is as close as I come to having some kind of libido.
    I blame the whole stress thing in my head. When your mood is so low there doesn’t seem to be a place for romantic time. Dressed in ‘depression fashion’ doesn’t get the spirit up and lack of sleep, well it just makes you want to sleep when you can. No need to bother me than with activities! Low self-esteem makes me question everything and well, I’m back in my head again.
    Loss of libido is really difficult when you’re in a relationship. And it’s another thing that falls under self-care for me but my mind gets in the way. It is another thing to work on, but I’m already tired just thinking about it ….. 😅

  6. Can’t help but answer your question in the last paragraph. First I want to say however that your post is HIGHLY informative. It seems to capsulize a lot of what one wonders when one wonders what libido is all about, and is very articulate as well.

    To answer the last question, I’m pretty much like you. My libido has decreased over the years, and I basically could care less if I ever had sex again for the rest of my life. I’ve noticed that some people think this outlook is “sad” — but considering all the problems that the sexual act (in particular when abused, misused, used frivolously etc.) has caused the human race, I am really fairly happy with where I stand.

    1. Yeah there seems to be this sense that people are missing out if they’re not looking to have sex, but you’re right, there are a lot of negative things that go along with it that I’m certainly quite happy to “miss out” on.

      1. STD’s. Birth control implants. Likelihood of pissing off somebody’s spouse, or even just a jealous person. The list goes on and on . . .

  7. Very informative post. My libido has gone downhill massively in recent years due to depression/ SAD. It didn’t really bother me too much while I was still single, but it’s horrible now that I’m in a (great) relationship. I have a really understanding partner but it still distresses me quite a lot. It makes me feel like an old woman, haha. I’m just far too tired pretty much all the time lately and would be too stuck in my own head anyway. Not great given that I’m still fairly young!

  8. Mine hasn’t lowered at all. I never really had one until I met my boyfriend. I had masturbated at times but it became higher when I lost my virginity.

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